Meet: Rich McKenna
Ames Research Center
Who I Am
My job for the Neurolab Mission is to serve as the Operations Lead for
preparing the Ames experiment hardware for loading into the Spacelab.
As Operations lead I am responsible for planning and documenting the many
steps necessary to deliver the hardware to the Kennedy Space Center, to
make sure that the right people with the right skills are ready to prepare
the hardware for flight at KSC, and to assist the Science Team in their
specimen loading operations.
Stepping outside the bounds of a formal job description, I have described
below some of the fun stuff and what I will really be doing.
When the time comes for me to travel to Kennedy Space Center in mid
March of 1998, my job becomes much more "hands on", and much more fun!
The major part of my time at KSC will be spent making sure that the Research
Animal Holding Facility Animal Habitats (cages) are ready for their animal
astronauts. After we are sure that the Habitats are mechanically ready
for the animals we will clean the cages one last time, then, inside a
very clean room, we will load the cages with food, make sure that the
drinking water system is working correctly and then assist the scientists
and veterinarian as they load the animals into the cages. After the animals
are loaded into their cages, we perform one last check to make sure that
every step has been completed correctly and then hand the cages over (turnover)
to the KSC technicians who will drive the cages out to the launch pad
for loading into the Spacelab.
These, or similar steps, will also be performed for the Cricket, Toadfish
and Swordfish experiment hardware by the other members of the Ames Operations
Team. Our team motto is "Ops Rocks!", and during the last two weeks before
launch we will be really "rockin", to keep up with a very tight and precise
schedule of events. We never lose sight of the fact that at the end of
the process we have a rocket ship standing ready for launch, and it will
NOT wait for us. We must be ready!
This "hardware turnover" as we call it, will represent the end of the
first part of my role in Neurolab. After watching the launch at KSC, (one
of the greatest sights and sounds on earth), I will quickly drive to Orlando
Airport and board a plane for Houston. After arriving in Houston I will
travel to the Johnson Space Center and take up my console position in
the Mission Control Center. (I calculate that by the time I finish my
first shift in the Mission Control Center I will have been awake for about
For the duration of the flight (sixteen or seventeen days), I will be
sitting in front of computer screens, wearing a headset (just like the
ones in the movie Apollo 13), monitoring the performance of the experiment
hardware, and listening to the other Space flight Professionals as they
monitor the health of the Spacelab and the Orbiter Systems. By watching
the numbers and graphs on the computer screens I will be able to make
sure that the animals are kept at the right temperature, that they are
drinking the right amount of water, and the lights come on and go off
at the right time. The astronauts will make sure that the animals are
eating their food and add additional food as needed.
One of the other tasks I, and my Science colleague, Dr. Phil Lane will
perform is to make any needed changes in the schedule of activities the
crew will perform during the next flight day. This schedule of activities
is commonly referred to as the Crew Activity Plan, or CAP, a highly detailed
document that lays out all of the experiment steps the crew members will
perform each day. Other tasks will include developing work-around plans
if an item of experiment hardware does not work properly, and recording
any data the crew "voices down" by radio during the flight.
Each flight day will be divided up into two twelve-hour shifts, the
Execute Shift and the Replan Shift. Mr. Chris Maese, Dr. Tom Howerton,
Ms Bonnie Dalton and Mr. Tony Intravaia will staff the Execute shift,
and as mentioned before, Dr. Phil Lane and I will staff the Replan Shift.
My Career Journey
I cannot really claim to have made one single career decision to become
an aerospace engineer, I just picked jobs in fields and technologies that
interested me. After working as a telephone systems technician, and after
getting an engineering degree, I went into nuclear engineering. After
12 years in the commercial nuclear power plant business I decided that
I wanted to broaden my technical skills. I determined that aerospace engineering
offered a greater variety of technologies to explore, so here I am!
But that is really not the whole story of my choice of career paths.
My interest in Aerospace Engineering may also come from the fact that
both my Father and Grandfather were Aerospace Engineers.
Perhaps it is wrong to call my Grandfather an aerospace engineer since
he started his career in England in the early 1900s, initially doing research
with manned kites (no joke!). He then wisely moved on to lighter than
aircraft, balloons and dirigibles. As aircraft technologies improved he
changed careers again and joined the Royal Air Force and rose to the rank
of squadron leader, flying Sopwith Camels over France during the First
World War. The Sopwith Camel was a biplane, made of wood, cloth and held
together with wire, so it could hardly be called a Spacecraft! So perhaps
it would be better to call him an aeronaut.
My father started his aerospace career pushing wood and wire, cloth
covered airplanes out of the mud on grass runways. He then became a draftsman,
designer and finally aerospace engineer working for Lockheed on the Polaris
Missile. Quite a span of technologies over just one lifetime and career.
So my career path was not totally random but influenced by my father's
stories and his retelling of his father's stories to me when I was a little
Preparation for Career
As a child I was always interested in how things worked. I took all
of my toys apart and put most of them back together. I read a lot of science
fiction during my years as a teenager, and built radios and amplifiers
I developed a couple of experiments for science fair in high school,
one trying to prove that the craters on the moon were made by meteors
hitting the moon. (This was before Neil Armstrong's visit to the moon).
This turned out to be a pretty dangerous experiment, since I used my BB
gun to simulate the meteors, aiming the gun at plates of liquid, semi-solid
and solid plaster of paris. But I made sure my Dad checked out and approved
my design before my first firing, so I guess my survival was assured.
The other experiment used my newly built short wave radio to try to
plot and predict the position of the Ionosphere by listening to Radio
Switzerland every night for 3 months. Pretty harebrained now that I think
about it, but although the experiment was a failure it did get me a fourth
place at the State Science Fair. So what they say is true, an experiment
that fails often is as valuable as one that succeeds.
If asked, I would tell the young person to try to take as many mathematics,
physics, science and English classes as his or her school offered. I include
the English classes because I have found that the ability to write clearly
is essential if one is to advance in any career, especially engineering.
I would also tell the young person the same thing I told my own son
when he first came home from school with a homework assignment. I explained
to him that when I was in school, I had personally tried every possible
way to get good grades without doing the homework and had never, ever
been successful. I told him that I finally came to the sad conclusion
that there is absolutely no way to succeed in school without doing all
the homework on a regular basis. He must have taken my advice, he became
a National Merit Scholar and is now attending the University of California
Finally, I would advise the young person to meet with adults who work
in the career or careers they are thinking of pursuing, and to ask them
as many questions as they can. Questions such as, are you enjoying your
career, does the career have a good, long term future, what will the adult
be doing in 5 years, 10 years, etc.
I was born in England and moved to Canada with my family when I was
10 years old. The school I went to in Canada really was a one room schoolhouse,
with all eight grades taught in the same large room. We had 20 students
total, with one teacher to teach all of the subjects and all of the grades.
The school has been preserved as a museum, and when my son was 5 years
old I took him to it and showed him what schools used to be like in the
"olden" days. He thought it was pretty cool! When the time came for me
to go to High School our family moved to the United States, where I now
My wife, myself and our cat live in small town next to the Santa Cruz
Mountains, on the edge of "Silicon Valley" in California. My hobbies include
woodworking, wine making and gardening. My wife works as a consulting
engineer, she is a native Californian who grew up in the Sacramento Valley.